Interview With Jamel Shabazz
Jamel Shabazz, a Brooklyn-born Army veteran and master of street photography, is best known for portraying African American communities over the years, crushing stereotypes and shining a light on the humanity he saw with his lens. His work has been published in books, shown in exhibitions, and used in editorial magazines. What many do not know is that the New York City icon had a career as a correctional officer at Rikers Island, a maximum-security jail housing thousands of incarcerated men and women, and that Shabazz took photographs of the residents, showing true empathy for the struggle in front of him every day. I sat down to ask the legend about his experiences inside a jail, and his life’s work.
Adolescent, pretrial detainees find a moment of joy despite the daily hardships of incarceration. Adolescent Reception Detention Center, Rikers Island. 1986. Photo by Jamel Shabazz.
A young detainee connecting with the outside world, while another detainee prepares to hand wash his clothes. Adolescent Reception Detention Center, Rikers Island. 1986. Photo by Jamel Shabazz.
Published September 2023
By Ryan M. Moser
Ryan M. Moser: What was it like being a corrections officer at Rikers Island?
Jamel Shabazz: Being a correctional officer was the most challenging experience I have ever encountered. I actually became an officer as a result of my father prompting me to take a number of city exams when I was discharged from the U.S. Army. For his generation, city jobs were equal opportunity careers with good benefits and were welcoming to veterans. No amount of training nor research that I had done over the years would prepare me for what I was exposed to; however, I took the assignment as a necessary journey and embraced it.
As a result of my Army experience, I understood the importance of leadership and discipline, two attributes that provided me with a firm foundation. I also had two close friends who were falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, and both served time on Rikers Island in the late 1970s. It was through my conversations with them that I became keenly aware that there were a number of innocent people who were incarcerated, but at the same time I was not so naive to think that all detainees were innocent.Honestly, I really had no idea what I was getting involved in. Watching the film Short Eyes, by Miguel Pinero provided a serious glimpse into the violent world of the NYC Department of Correction. The correction academy at that time was on Rikers Island, and the racial mix of the recruits was evenly balanced between Blacks, Whites and Hispanics, a handful of women, and a number of veterans. The instructors were all seasoned officers, many being former hostages during the riots of the 1970s. Hearing about their experiences allowed me to see the seriousness of the job.
Upon graduating from the academy, I was assigned to the Adolescent Reception Detention Center. This facility housed adolescent pretrial detainees, the overwhelming majority awaiting court as many had bails they could not afford to pay, and a few had been convicted and were waiting to go to the state prison where they would carry out their sentences. What I noticed about many of the officers and supervisors assigned there, was the fact that a lot of them were Vietnam veterans, and they were very serious in their dispositions. My first real encounter with inmates put me in shock. I recall walking toward the receiving room (the first stop in the jail for arriving inmates) and there was a large bullpen, packed to capacity, standing room only, and with about 80 teens awaiting court appearances. In this mix I saw the helpless faces of young men looking terrified because of the stronger and more aggressive cellmates and what they might do to them. I knew then that I was up against a serious challenge, and I had to find a way to navigate through this madness and create a system that would work for me.
One of the very first posts I was assigned to was “The Bing,” aka solitary confinement. It was a separate area, where detainees who had committed infractions were being held, locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, and let out only for a phone call, a shower, and a little recreation. Every housing area had 60 inmates and two officers. To my surprise, when I entered the housing area, I saw a number of familiar faces from my neighborhood, and many of them I had photographed months earlier. The whole experience was bittersweet, as there was relief that I did know a few folks, but yet painful seeing them in such conditions. Many of them would provide me with helpful insights, such as telling me the ins and outs, and who to be mindful of. One of the things I also found very interesting as a new officer was that during the daily cell searches, on many occasions I would see photographs of what I believe were the fathers of the detainees in military photographs; most looked like they were taken in Vietnam.
RM: What was it like being a Black corrections officer having to patrol mostly Black prisoners?
JS: Being a Black corrections officer was extremely painful and depressing. I saw so many young men of color in bondage and brokenness throughout my 20-year career. I felt caught in the middle at times as the majority of the detainees viewed me and officers in general as the enemy. On the other end, officers, particularly the racists, both uniform and brass, saw all inmates as “Mutts.” I will never forget when I was gathering up my housing area of approximately 60 adult detainees in the corridor to escort them to the mess hall, when a known racist supervisor heard me refer to them as “gentlemen.” He flew into a rage, and the next morning at a roll call, stating how he overheard an officer refer to inmates as gentlemen. Looking me dead in my face, he said “They are not gentlemen, they are mutts and animals and if I ever hear one of you say that I will come after your job.” That is when the reality of what I was dealing with hit me.
After that incident, those in the uniform force who held racist views, or officers in general who just hated all detainees, kept an eye on me. I came from a very different world than many of my co-workers, as I still lived in the neighborhood and had a sincere concern for my community and how so many young men were getting caught in the system. As a Black officer I could not stand by and not use my voice and position to help guide young men who might have made a bad decision, which got them locked up. For me it was deeper than just the care, custody, and control of them. It was my assignment and responsibility to try to put them on a better path and I was in a unique position to help turn the lives of these broken young men around, so that they could go on to be better citizens. I stressed having dignity despite their circumstances and told them that when they walk with me, they must be erect, with no hands in their pockets, chest out, stomach in, something that was instilled in me during my time in the service. Many under my care appreciated the discipline and sense of pride, and later in life when I would see them, they told me how I changed their lives around, by the guidance and example I showed them.
RM: What are your views on the criminal justice system/incarceration today in America?
JS: The criminal justice system is completely flawed in that it has contributed to the destruction of countless lives over the many decades. Mass incarceration has always been big business from slavery through today. The prison industrial complex is a money-making venture and if poor people and people of color had more equality in society perhaps the prisons and jails would not have been so full. Illegal drugs have intentionally been placed in poor communities from heroin to crack to cocaine, and the users needed treatment not incarceration.
RM: Do you see a parallel between the Jim Crow era following the Civil War and the mass incarceration of Black people in America today?
JS: Yes. During the Jim Crow days, cheap labor fueled the economy. African Americans were often targeted under the vagrancy laws and in many cases, especially in the South, railroaded without legal representation and placed in the system to work for little or nothing under some of the harshest conditions, which mirrored slavery. Very little has changed from that time until now. Through lack of employment and educational opportunities due to systemic racism over the many decades, many African Americans have been trapped. So much could have been gained, after World War II, if Blacks would have benefitted from the GI Bill like White Americans. White soldiers became homeowners and students in universities, thus allowing them greater opportunities and chances to create generational wealth. However, due to blatant discrimination against Blacks, many of those opportunities were not provided and families found themselves stuck in poverty. Illegal drugs were introduced into Black neighborhoods, from heroin throughout the 1950s thru 1970s, to crack in the 1980s. This devastated African American communities throughout America destroying lives that needed rehabilitation, but instead got incarceration with unfair prison sentences that made matters even worse.
RM: Having worked at Rikers Island for 20 years, how do you feel about its closing now?
JS: Closing Rikers Island and spending six billion dollars of taxpayers money to create four smaller jails throughout the city is not going to solve the problems that plague Rikers. What really needs to change is management and leadership. Rikers has 413 acres of land and numerous facilities that could be used to help those who are suffering from mental illness. Well over 40 percent of those who are incarcerated on the Island are suffering from some form of mental illness and trauma. With the closing of mental health facilities throughout the country, jails and prisons become places where many people suffering from mental illness are placed. These folks, like many of those battling with addiction, need to be placed in special facilities to help them because incarceration only exacerbates the problem. With so many mentally ill people both incarcerated and homeless on the streets, Rikers could even be that place to give them the treatment they need to better adjust in society. The money being considered to build new jails will then be used to build assisted living housing for those in need, along with general housing for the over 70,000 homeless New Yorkers.
Another major problem creating havoc on Rikers Island is gang culture. Rather than seeking a way to remedy the problem, the leadership came up with this questionable solution of housing gang members together, thus giving each individual gang more power. More guidance counselors, mentors, former gang members, and social workers are needed to help these young men and women navigate their life to reenter society. Sadly, for so many, the gangs are the only families they have and if there is no intervention, they will continue to engage in self-destructive ways and upon their release, return back to the city streets much worse. With the various functional jails on Rikers Island, money could be spent to refurbish them, creating schools and job training to give those confined a better chance in returning back to society.
RM: You have said that you use your photographs as a form of protest. What advice would you give to incarcerated artists and writers as they try to have a voice against injustice?
JS: I recently read the book Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement by Albert Woodfox. Albert spent nearly 44 years in solitary confinement under some of the worst conditions imaginable in Louisiana. Despite all the many trials and tribulations during his incarceration, he remained steadfast and turned a negative into a positive with his writings and unwavering voice. Albert, who has since passed away, served as a great example for those presently incarcerated to use their voices and experiences to shed light on a broken and violent system, in hopes that it could create awareness and inspire reform, while educating the youth to the horrors of incarceration.
There is so much talent behind those prison walls. America is in a major crisis now. We need all hands on deck; conscious artists, poets, writers, painters, photographers, and motivational speakers both on the inside and outside, to lend their voices and creativity to address this growing problem of mass incarceration and help young people from falling into the traps of incarceration.
RM: You stated once that photography gave you a purpose. Do you think that the arts can save incarcerated people in that same way?
JS: Absolutely. I remember the story about Valentino Dixon who spent 27 years in Attica State Prison for a murder he didn’t commit. During his imprisonment, he spent much of his time drawing golf courses. Despite never playing golf, he was able to draw various and different courses based on magazines he had on golf. His case gained national attention when he was profiled by Golf Digest magazine and shortly afterwards the staff of that publication, along with the Georgetown University Prison Reform Project, took an interest in him. This led to the district attorney’s office revisiting the circumstances surrounding his case, which resulted in the actual murderer confessing to the crime, thus gaining him his freedom. That story alone can serve as a great source of inspiration for those battling for their freedom.
RM: When you took a picture of a boy at the Brownsville train station standing behind the steel bars, you said that it felt like it was your responsibility to lend a hand to kids who were struggling. Is there anything you could do for those same kids that are now incarcerated?
JS: It is very challenging for me at this particular point in my life as a retiree, and trying to save so many lives within my own immediate circle. However, what I have done over the many years has encouraged the next generation of corrections officers, to understand that they are in a very unique position to mentor the young people who are under their care. I let them know that it is bigger than a paycheck, and that there are a number of young people who need help, and if the circumstances are right, being that guide could help save a life and allow a person to return back to society a better person.
RM: How important do you think it is for people from a culture to tell their own stories?
JS: It’s very important for people of all cultures to tell their stories, who else is going to do it properly? One of the reasons that I got into photography was because I knew that everyone that I photographed had an important story. Knowing that, mainly during telephone conversations, I ask specific questions regarding one’s backstory, and I am amazed by the things that they share with me. Earlier today, I was looking at some of my original notes from the 1980s and 1990s, and I realized that I have extensive handwritten notes from countless Vietnam veterans that I conversed with, along with prostitutes, correction officers, and just everyday people whom I met; each one sharing precious insight, that goes beyond anything I learned in school. I encourage all of my students to act as journalists, and get those important stories, starting with their family members and the people they meet on their journey, much like the alchemist.
RM: You documented life at Rikers Island with your photography for many years. What was the biggest impact from that, and is there one particular story that stood out to you over the years?
JS: The biggest impact that I made during my time on Rikers Island is being brought to my attention [today] via my social media feeds. A number of formerly incarcerated young men who I supervised during the 1980s are reaching out to me, explaining how I helped to transform their lives through my mentorship and through my photography.
One particular young man took an interest in me. I would bring in newspapers and magazines of substance and encourage him to read, something he told me he never had an interest in until he met me. I stressed the importance of taking advantage of the educational opportunities while he was in jail, which he did. I shared stories of redemption and atonement and how it was not too late to change his life around. He explained that he never knew his father, he was the oldest of four siblings and how his mother used to take her frustration out by physically abusing him. She would fall victim to drugs, so as the oldest he would engage in petty crime to feed his younger brothers and sisters, eventually landing him in jail. I saw the good and potential in him and I spent time providing him with guidance throughout the time I supervised him, until I was transferred to another command. I would reconnect with him a few years later and was impressed with how he had grown into a productive citizen, however still struggling due to his past trauma. I decided to continue the mentorship, and the only thing that I required was that he stay out of trouble and mentor other young men in the community, which he would do for a number of years, gaining great respect and having a serious impact. Back in July, I was informed that he passed away after a long battle with diabetes, but a year prior to his passing he gave an incredible video testimony about the impact that I had on his life, saying that, if it were not for my intervention, he would have been dead a long time ago.